KJ: When I was a teenager, my youngest brother had a lot of issues, and didn't go to school. He couldn't go outside, so he couldn't have friends, so he was basically a prisoner in my mother's house. There was an upright piano there. And occasionally, my brother, knowing zero -- meaning really zero -- about piano, would work out anger or frustration, which he must have had gobs of, by going to the keyboard and just playing some shit. He didn't know what notes he was hitting or what would come out. But I realized there were moments that were so good and they came from his ignorance. I'm not sure he even knew they were good moments. But I found myself thinking: how would a pianist ever -- how do you approach that if you know the instrument?
I had the privilege of visiting the nonpareil musician Keith Jarrett the other day at his woodsy lakeside compound in rural New Jersey. As he enjoyed some downtime in advance of an October European tour, Jarrett made room to talk in his home studio about talent, improvisation, and his evolving relationship with his audience.
He also gave me a piece of new, unreleased music to play for you. Find a good pair of headphones...
In a world teeming with astonishing musicians, Jarrett stands out. He is the rare artist who has managed to create something profoundly new. After a number of influential years on the jazz scene, including a stint in Miles Davis's band, Jarrett began in the 1970s to perform full-length solo piano concerts that were purely improvisational. He would step out on stage to a lone piano and, with no preconceived notions, play more than an hour of mesmerizing new music constructed on the spot from elements of jazz, blues, classical, hymnals, and atonal syncopations. His piano provided the percussion, the bass, the melody, and every other voicing. A single extended piece could convey rage, hope, melancholy, and quiet awe. He called these excursions "epic journeys into the unknown." They simply have to be listened-to to be believed. (Recommendations below).
Even for those familiar with jazz or rock improvisation, Jarrett solo concerts were -- and still are -- quite unlike any other experience. They are so spectacular that it's often difficult at first to accept that they are improvisations. In our conversation the other day, Jarrett brought up this phenomenon of disbelief several times, with some amusement. More and more people are hip to his work, he realizes. But still, after more than thirty five years, he will occasionally be approached after a performance by a newish listener who declares, "I know which ones you improvised!"
"What are you talking about?" Jarrett will say.
"Well, you can't have improvised the things that start right on the melody and have a totally integral structure -- like that last piece had to have been written and structured that way because it's too dramatically done. It had structure and melody."
"Sorry," Jarrett says. "That was improvised."
This is one of the difficult paradoxes of superior achievement: brilliance breeds alienation. Success and fame bring great satisfaction, but also the frustration of being misunderstood.
Risk-taking is central here -- central to the audience awe/disbelief, and central to the process itself. Most great achievers have learned the value of taking great leaps in their work, being willing -- even eager -- to fail, and learn from that failure. Jarrett, though, does all this in front of an audience. His leaps are his art.
Strikingly, the whole process is still partly a mystery to him. "I'm somehow working with this unconscious process and then the conscious," he told me. "The composer David Chesky said to me one night, 'You're out of control and in control and I don't know anybody else [who does that]. If I could do this, I wouldn't compose. I wouldn't hand a bunch of strangers my work. I would go to the piano and do what you're doing.'"
Here's a gorgeous sample of Jarrett's live solo work, from his forthcoming 2-concert, 3-CD album Testament. The album itself features two concerts: Paris's Salle Pleyel on November 26, 2008, and London's Royal Festival Hall on December 1, 2008. This is the second piece from the Paris concert. It is 10:36, and follows an opening piece of slightly longer length. (The selection is my choice, and was made both because it conveys many elements that I find particularly moving about Jarrett's work and also because virtually every other piece from both concerts is much more difficult to appreciate out of the context of the whole performance. This is not the most daring or even impressive piece on the album, but in this separated context, it may be the most moving, particularly to people unfamiliar with his work.)
(I am grateful to publicist Tina Pelikan, manager Steve Cloud,
producer Manfred Eicher, and of course to Jarrett himself for
permission to do this -- something they have never before granted).
In our conversation, we spent a fair amount of time discussing the mindset that drives his improvisations. It is rooted, of course, in a certain amount of confidence that his years of playing, practice, and listening have given him the tools to pull it off. Beyond that, though, Jarrett emphasizes, paradoxically, how critical it is to clear his mind and set himself free from his own knowledge and habits. Jarrett says:
How do you find these surprising combinations...if you have perfect pitch and you know what everything's going to sound like? How do you get past your own [understanding]? Those are barriers. Perfect pitch would lead you to know exactly what it's going to sound like before you're going to play it. So one of the things I do now as part of the risk-taking and have been doing more since Radiance [2005 album] is not to play something. If my hands are in a certain position at the keyboard, I don't play in that position -- especially if I've already thought about what that sound is going to be. I just move my hand [away] and say: "Do something."
This is an astonishing notion: that, in order to tap into your most provocative creative possibilities, you need to not do what comes natural, not do what is most instinctive and habitual.
Much more from my interview with Keith Jarrett coming soon...
Some solo Jarrett recommendations: Paris Concert, The Carnegie Hall Concert (I was there!), Radiance, Sun Bear Concerts.
Thanks to Daniella De Franco, Dan Levy, Richard Gehr, Steve Silberman, Michael Strong, Kurt Hirsch, Lea Thau, Josh Shenk, and -- for introducing me to Jarrett's music -- Nick Moore.
(Photo: Junichi Hirayama)
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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us.